Reading the story allegorically
A lot of readers are tempted to look at the penal colony itself as an allegory for something. What's an allegory? Think of it as a story in which the parts of the story (characters, objects, events in the plot) mean or refer to something else, and, importantly, something else in particular. An allegorical story as a whole refers to something else and has a definite meaning or message. It's easier to think of this with an example.
Austin Warren , the first major critic in the English language to write about "In the Penal Colony" (in the 1940s), set the tone for later critics by reading the story as an elaborate religious allegory. In his take on it, the penal colony itself was "the world" – so we are all in the penal colony!
There's a bit more to Warren's interpretation than that. A penal colony is a place where convicted criminals are sent, usually to do labor. Everyone in the penal colony, then, is guilty (of something). This is one way of making sense of the officer's idea that "Guilt is never to be doubted" – it's not so much that guilt for a particular crime is never to be doubted, but that, since someone's in a penal colony, he must already guilty of something. In Warren's religious reading, the world is the penal colony because everyone in the world is a sinner, guilty before the law of God and deserving punishment (source). The idea that "we're all guilty" is a common theme in many religions, and that's one way of understanding the core of the officer/old Commandant's worldview.
So now let's fill out the allegory. Because Warren reads the story as an allegory, he can make sense of most of the characters and parts of it in a pretty neat way. The old Commandant is God, who gives the Law to the world after creating it (he made the penal colony and designed its judicial procedure) and before whom everyone is guilty. See, an allegory makes everything in the story "equal" something else. Old Commandant = God; founding the penal colony = creation of the world; designing its judicial procedure = giving laws/commandments (source).
As for the rest? Warren suggests the following. The machine = organized religion, which keeps all the believers together and imposes penalties on them for disobeying God's law. It's kind of like "the Church." The officer is an orthodox believer, probably a theologian or an Inquisitor (think Spanish Inquisition). The explorer = secular humanist, someone who doesn't believe in God or his commandments and has his own views about what's "humane" or "just" based on non-religious ideas (source).
And you'll see, in Warren's interpretation, the story has a definite point. Kafka, Warren thinks, is sympathetic to religion, and regrets that it is losing its place in the modern world – which is what he sees as the meaning of the old Commandant's loss of adherents and the collapse of the machine. The officer, then, is a kind of hero, who tries to defend it, though it's impossible and he dies with it in the end. The "non-believers" can then laugh at the machine, because they haven't understood it – like the people at the old Commandant's grave.
Warren's interpretation raises a whole host of questions: what does Kafka think the point of religion is? Why would he be sympathetic to it as it's "represented" in the story? We won't get into those here, but feel free to look up Austin Warren if you want to see his answers. (To learn more about Warren's interpretation of "In the Penal Colony, " check out his famous article on the subject: Warren, Austin. "An Exegetical Note on 'In The Penal Colony." The Southern Review, Vol. VII, No. 2,1941, pp. 363-369.)
Anyway, that's what an allegorical reading of "In the Penal Colony" looks like, and there are a number of them, which means there are many options for how you interpret the story, and they can be quite different from each other (though religious allegory is especially popular).
Not reading the story strictly as an allegory
Other readers, however, think that it's wrong to read Kafka as an allegory, and believe he didn't intend his stories to be read that way. The arguments against allegorical readings are complex, but basically they boil down to two points: 1) allegorical readings of Kafka are often imaginative but read much more into the text than is actually there; and 2) they make things too easy: everything gets a clear meaning, and the story gets a clear point. According to this school of thought, simple clarity of meaning doesn't seem like Kafka's style.
We here at Shmoop wouldn't say it's wrong to read Kafka as an allegory. It can be fun, and make you feel as if you solved a puzzle. So long as you can make it convincing, and make it fit with the story, go ahead – it'll probably enrich your experience of the story. But we don't recommend doing so until you've spent a while thinking about the story without treating it as an allegory. Why? Because part of what makes the story so interesting and rich is how hard it is to pin down, and how it seems as though it could mean many things. If you read exclusively it as an allegory, like Warren does, you pin it down.
Taking up Warren's allegory, for instance, makes it almost impossible to find the story funny, or to wonder whether the officer is crazy and the old Commandant was a psychopath. In Warren's view, the old Commandant just is God, the officer is a faithful believer (and the hero of the story), and that's that. We find the story more interesting, and more troubling, when we admit that we just can't tell, in the end, whether or not the officer is a madman.
Our recommendation, take it or leave it, is to read the story as "suggestive of allegory," but not strictly as an "allegory." Look at the ways it might lead you to come up with an allegory, but don't commit yourself to an allegory. It might be frustrating. But you'll also find it makes the story more fascinating. It also continues to challenge you: though you can make strong cases that the story is an allegory, there's no definite evidence that it should be read that way – that's why there are so many different interpretations. And it's probably more what Kafka himself had in mind. He liked keeping things inscrutable (that is, without a clear meaning).
The Penal Colony
As we've said in "Reading the story allegorically," the penal colony itself is often read as an allegory. If you do that, you'll read the whole story as an allegory. And you can do that in multiple ways. We've already described how Austin Warren read the penal colony as "the world full of sinners."
Another way to read it is a quite different interpretation of the colony as a "totalitarian society" – think the USSR, Nazi Germany, or the world of 1984. As in a totalitarian society, the people inside the penal colony are kept under tight control by brutal methods of torture. As in a totalitarian society, too, there's no real justice, though there's supposed to be – you can be sentenced without trial or defense. There's also that way in which totalitarian societies tend to make their leaders into godlike figures, worthy of reverence: just like the old Commandant. In that reading, the officer himself becomes a victim of brainwashing, and the explorer is right to be horrified.
This reading is a bit less of a definite, or "strict," allegory than Warren's, because it doesn't make everything in the story "represent" something quite different (equating the old Commandant with God, for example). The penal colony could literally be called a totalitarian society, just on a very small scale.
Still another way to read it is kind of a cross between the two. The penal colony isn't a totalitarian society with a false religion, so much as a traditional religious society, held together by a brutal-seeming set of religious practices like ritual sacrifice. We, for ourselves, think this might be the best way to go, though we wouldn't identify the penal colony with any particular society. This way of seeing the story leaves readers (and the explorer) open to deciding for themselves whether there might be certain true or compelling elements in the society's practices, regardless of how ugly they look on the surface.
Or is it just barbarism after all? Maybe, at the end of the day, the penal colony is just what it seems: a gruesome, horrible, inhumane place.
Depending on how you read the penal colony itself, the officer will change, too. In Warren's view (see "Reading the story allegorically" above), the officer is something of a priest figure, and definitely the hero of the story, standing up for his true beliefs. If the penal colony is a totalitarian state, the officer is just a thoroughly brainwashed goon who buys into the system and kills people with no bad conscience. In the "traditional religious society" reading, he can be a priest-like figure or a "true believer."
On the other hand, if you want a much more dramatic allegorical reading of the officer, you could see him as a Christ figure. The machine, with its excruciating and very long procedure, and the wounds it inflicts on the body of the prisoner, might make you think of the crucifixion. Plus, like Christ, the officer sacrifices himself and suffers an excruciating death. Of course, if you want to go this route, the question is "For what does the officer sacrifice himself?"
The Machine or Apparatus
The machine can also be read a bunch of different ways, depending on the frame you take. In Warren's religious allegory, it's something like the Church, or organized religion, which is responsible for enforcing God's law on earth. It can be brutal and painful, but ultimately it's necessary for the "redemption" of human beings.
In a totalitarian reading of the story, the machine is more like an elaborate torture device, and that's that. On a traditional religious society reading, it could be considered an instrument for ritual sacrifice, or it could represent the elaborate set of beliefs and practices of a religion caught up in ritual sacrifice.
The Old Commandant
He might be God, a dictator, a prophet figure of some kind, or just a man on a power trip. Check out his "Character Analysis" for more.
The script actually used to write on the body of the condemned man definitely seems to have a sort of religious symbolism about it. It's elaborate, and it's incomprehensible to the uninitiated, as so much of religion can be. Plus, what's written on the body of the condemned man is the "commandment" he's broken. Not the law or the rule, but the "commandment." Hmm…
The body in the story isn't so much a symbol or an allegory as something emphasized in the story. The punishment of a condemned man has a lot to do with his body. Not just because it's an immensely long, painful, and elaborate way of torturing the body, but because the condemned man learns his sentence through his body, "through his wounds," as the officer says. It's as if learning through the body is deeper, somehow, than learning through the mind, so that torturing the body has a definite meaning. The control the penal colony exercises is over the body, whether it be through the prisoner's chains or the devilish workings of the apparatus.
The story is also chock-full of nasty images of the body. There's the condemned man's ugly, doglike face and the officer's "uncommonly limp" face that "breathes with the mouth wide open." Then there's all the icky bodily oozing we see in the story: constant sweating from the explorer and especially the officer, who's roasting in his uniform, the condemned man's vomiting, and all of the blood generated by the apparatus. And there's that lasting, gruesome final image of the officer with the spike through his head. Throughout the story, then, we're constantly called back to the body, in rather revolting ways.